The Challenge of Broadcasting in the Face of Threats

by: J.M Butt

In 2008-9, as Head of PACT Radio, I presided over Live Radio Swat. We had a transmitter in Mingora, the capital of Swat, and were about to set up one in Chakdarra, in the south of the Swat Valley, when we were forced to cease our transmission.

It was the time of the height of militancy in Swat. Besides the notorious radio station of Fazlullah, another even more extremist radio station was being run by an individual by the name of Shah Dauran. Though we tried to avoid confrontation with anyone, almost inevitably – seeing that our radio station was devoted to building peace in accordance with age-old local, religious and national traditions – we managed to find our way into the bad books, certainly of Shah Dauran. I would not be surprised if Fazlullah also mentioned us in a menacing tone on one or two occasions, though we were not able to monitor any such menacing threats from his side. But we kept up our work.

We had religious programmes, depicting the true, tolerant, pious and God-fearing Islam practiced by the masses; we had topical programmes, reflecting current issues and people’s desire for peace and progress; we had cultural shows and talkback programmes. In fact, the full range of programmes that still constitute the 12-hour daily transmission schedule of PACT Radio/The Saba Story was developed at this time, during what was called, by the senior former Pakistani administrator and High Commissioner Akbar S.Ahmad, now an academic in the United States – speaking on a BBC programme at the time – our “pioneering” work in Swat.

Not only was I running a radio station in Swat at this time, I was also living there, and had been for most of the previous 30 years. As a resident of Swat, I can safely say that PACT Radio’s Live Radio Swat was truly reflecting the situation in Swat. I was not the only resident of Swat to feel this. PACT Radio’s Live Radio Swat received dozens of phone-calls and letters from listeners every day. Here are just a few comments from the first week of September 2009:

Afzal Khan, a school teacher, appreciated PACT Radio programmes and labelled them “serious and meaningful while other FM channels are just wasting time. I would request Swat people to listen to your programmes and to encourage your station for the betterment of society.”

Faridun from Saidu Sharif wrote:  “I like your programme and it is a good platform to communicate positive messages. Due to some personal dispute some people mentioned my name to the security forces, saying I was a militant. I requested them to please avoid doing such things. The government should investigate such matters properly to protect innocent people from such problems.”

Bakht Zareen from Mingora appreciated the way we were encouraging people to protect the environment. “The Swat river was clean and we used its water for drinking but due to pollution now we are not able to use it. Through your programme, I am requesting people to please protect it because this is the beauty of Swat valley.”

Fazal Ahmad from Gul Jaba Kabal wrote in to say we were talking about peace, how peace would come to the region and what common people can do for it. “You may also add the Army’s comments on it,” he mentioned.

These were just a few comments that showed that, despite all the difficulties that we were facing, treading a fine line between not overly incurring the wrath of militants, while at the same time avoiding getting on the wrong side of military authorities – the civilian administration at that time was powerless – we managed to, not only reflect the true situation in Swat, but at the same time give a voice to their desire for peace in accordance with their heartfelt and age-old traditions. Our approach and broadcasts were fully in keeping with the motto of PACT Radio: “Traditional Solutions for Modern Problems.”

As Head of PACT Radio/The Saba Story, I must honestly admit that this assessment of our success in Swat has not been mirrored in the tribal territories. By the tribal territories, I am referring to Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and Waziristan. PACT Radio/The Saba Story has considerable work to do before it can say that it is reflecting the true situation in those tribal areas, while also expressing the voice of its people.

There are several reasons for this. Unlike settled areas, in the tribal areas people are not used to exposure in the media. They are not accustomed to having their issues covered in a public forum. This contrasts strongly with the situation in places like Swat, where people have been reared for several decades in a reasonably pluralistic and open environment. It is also in sharp contrast to the situation in Afghanistan, where the public have become very used to media coverage, during the international conflict that has raged in that country for over thirty years.

Not only this. Any journalist who covers the situation in these tribal areas is exposing him or herself to extreme danger. One PACT Radio trainee from the Mohmand Agency, Mukarram Khan Atif – more recently working for Dewa Radio – was murdered in January of this year. He was the twelfth tribal journalist to die in the line of duty since 2002. Before him, in May 2011, another journalist who worked on and off for PACT Radio in its early days, Nasrullah Afridi, also gave his life while pursuing his profession. Neither of these journalists were working for PACT Radio at the time of their death.

PACT Radio/The Saba Story does not take lightly the dangers that journalists face, working in the tribal areas. Yet at the same time, it does not intend to shirk its duty, to reflect the true situation in those parts, and to provide a platform for those honest to God citizens who would like to solve their problems and live in tranquility and prosperity. It also believes that even in the most difficult and threatening conditions, there is always a way forward. There is always a way to cover issues tactfully and constructively, in accordance with people’s traditions and values, in a way that does not cause offence, but acts as a trigger for reform and improvement. It will continue to work to find a way to provide good, thorough, conciliatory and also safe coverage of the dangerous tribal areas.


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